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 January 6, 2012

Buy Yourself Something You Don’t Really Need

For the holidays, I hope you didn’t get socks or fruitcakes, but gift certificates.

If so, may I make a few suggestions?

Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures is the album of the year. It starts at the beginning of the august composer-lyricist’s career in 1941 (with two glorious songs from Best Foot Forward) and continues through 2010, when he wrote his last song. The 29 cuts are mostly demos that he sings in his very grounded and melodious near-falsetto.

“A Manifestation” is such a smashing piece of special material for Beatrice Lillie’s Madame Arcati that one wonders why anyone connected with High Spirits would even suggest that it be replaced. It has a terrific subtext, a particularly deft take of a certain word, and a delicious lyric that goes in one direction until it makes a hairpin turn.

“On Such a Night as This,” a beautiful ballad from the unproduced Here Come the Dreamers, makes time to include an in-joke on another song that Martin wrote. “Who is Sylvia?” is a nicely demented waltz for an unmade 1958 movie.

Four songs are from Tattered Tom, which was to star Debbie Reynolds in 1968 – until Lucille (Wildcat) Ball told her of the perils of doing a Broadway musical. Songs about New York would seem to have been done to death, but Martin gives new life to one here – and to another one later for a Maggie and Jiggs musical.

Lehman Engel always assigned his BMI Workshop members to write a song for The Member of the Wedding. Good thing that his students never heard the ones Martin wrote for his version. They would have got so discouraged that they would have never written a word or note.

Notice that many of Martin’s projects never materialized. The reasons are carefully detailed in an astonishingly beautiful 84-page booklet. It also serves to show us how much Martin is admired, for it contains tributes from such notables as Stephen Sondheim, Michael Feinstein, Ted Chapin and Sheldon Harnick; the latter’s essay fills 13 pages. You might feel equally inspired to praise Hugh Martin after hearing this album. Be careful, though: you will run the risk of drowning when you shower, for you won’t be able to stop singing Martin’s songs while water pours from above.

Truman Capote invented the “non-fiction novel” with In Cold Blood. Stephen Cole and David Krane could be said to have invented the “non-fiction fictional musical” in The Road to Qatar, whose original cast album has just been released. For while Stephen and David were actually commissioned to write a new musical for the Emir of Qatar, Michael and Jeffrey are the ones doing it in this 2011 musical.

Cole’s such a musical theater authority that it’s worth joining Facebook to see his many perceptive comments about Forgotten Musicals. Here he gets in good puns about Babes in Oil-land and Dubai Bye Birdie. But there’s conflict in the show, because Michael and Jeffrey are, after all, New York Jews in a land that sees red instead of rolling out the red carpet for members of the tribe. Still, in this other desert city “if you play the palace, you really do” and “if they say you’re hot, you can bet it’s true.”

Matters did get hot for the writers, because they had to glean what the Arabs liked, and how they liked it, and had to give it to them just that way. Each struggles with “all the ‘Must Be’s’ buzzing around my head” and the realization that “they don’t want it great; they just want it soon.” However, mention “a la mode,” and the line gets cut, because “a la” is, after all, a homonym for “Allah.”

It’s a rare composer who can provide sharp and hummable melodies to a rash of comedy songs, but Krane does just that, down to musicalizing an Arabian movie star who plays Gypsy on his iPod. Finally the CD has a lovely song that was cut – in which Michael and Jeffrey meet and find that they have so much in common, it’s a phenomenon. Any musical theater enthusiast will relate to this one.

We know Michael Patrick Walker from his Altar Boyz music, but his new CD called Out of Context shows that there’s even more to him than that monster hit displayed.

Walker has cooked up a baker’s dozen of nifty songs. If “All about Me” had been sung by Dame Edna in her 2010 show, the thing might have been a hit. In it, the estimable Anne L. Nathan vows that she will be “no more gofer, no more chauffeur, no more wife.” “Weird Little Man” has Kate Weatherhead ruminate on a possible beau who’s “kinda cute -- but not the kinda cute that makes you stop and stare.” Walker provides the perfect quasi-wrong note for the phrase “Never Added Up,” in which Andy Karl details in frustration a next-best-thing-to-love relationship. “Irene” shows how far show songs have come since 1919. (Having Lisa Howard do it doesn’t hurt, either.) Telly Leung and Michael Arden sing about being a “Different Kind of Man” who disappointed their fathers because each is “a withered branch upon the family tree” who would literally be “the end of an era.” This song can’t possibly be autobiographical, for Walker’s father has to be inordinately proud of what his son has achieved.

And then, of course, there’s Look, I Made a Hat. Although Stephen Sondheim never wrote a book of a musical, we have to be grateful that he’s now written two books. While revisiting his lyrics makes us shake our heads in admiration, reading his introductions to many of the songs is wonderful fun, too.

Thank the Lord that Sondheim apparently saved everything he ever wrote. (Memo to up-and-coming writers: do the same.) He’s so thorough that I blush to say that he forgot to give us his delightful reworking of “The Best of All Possible Worlds.”

Savor the songs that never saw the light of matinee day or evening performance. Here’s “I Wish” from the unmade Into the Woods film: (“I wish my shoes were not so tight” / “I wish my parents wouldn’t fight.”) Sondheim has often given his own spin on subjects and themes that his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II wrote long before him: Merrily / Allegro, Pacific Overtures / King and I as well as plenty of others. “I Wish” follows the spirit of “The Prince is Giving a Ball” from Hammerstein’s Cinderella – itself a harbinger of Into the Woods.

The book is solely in black-and-white, which works well enough for photocopies of typewritten notes; one reveals that for Assassins Sondheim was tempted to write a song about Bush “a la Cora and her Boys.” But color would have been nice for the pictures – especially the handsome two-page spread that shows the 2010 outdoor production of Into the Woods in Regents Park in London. The lack of color means that Sondheim’s thoughts, lyrics and edits on his beloved legal pads look drab; too bad that we can’t see them in the original yellow that would be at least as bright as the artwork for The Color Purple.

The lyrics are in darker print than the grey found in Finishing the Hat. That makes comparing four different versions of “Putting It Together” much easier. Ditto relishing an obscure cut-out, such as Anyone Can Whistle’s “The Natives Are Restless.” (In it, Cora sang, “I talked to the state house, and they’re in a state.”)

Sondheim turns out to be even more amazing than we think. We know that to write a song as great as “Liaisons” is an astonishing accomplishment, but for us to learn that he wrote it in a steak house while Peggy Lee was singing “Fever” on the jukebox is amazing. And if you think that Sondheim’s borrowing the melody of John Philip Sousa’s “El Capitan” was either unnecessary or cheap in “How I Saved Roosevelt,” here he tells us that it actually was the melody that the marching band was playing when Giuseppe Zangara took his shot.

There’s an occasional piece of gossip: Richard Rodgers’ assistants would review the reviews of Do I Hear a Waltz? – and then would literally cut out any word or line that had criticized his music. You might blink in surprise when you see four pages devoted to Illya Darling. But Sondheim show-doctored it, although those attending the patient resisted his diagnosis and treatment.

Out of 445 pages, a full 123 – more than a quarter – are taken by one show – if you consider Wise Guys / Gold / Bounce / Road Show one show. Sondheim has made life much easier for any scholar who wants to do a Ph. D. thesis on the show(s).

He admits his mistakes. Among many he isn’t afraid to list is his adding a character into Bounce who turned out to be “the wrong blood type for a transfusion.” Another song for the show “took me a month to write and it was completely unnecessary to both the plot and the story.”

And yet, if there’s any doubt that Sondheim could work up the old magic in Wise Guys, how about this lyric? Mrs. Wanamaker, described as “a large woman,” asks architect Addison Mizner, “A house for me, too. Something in blue,” only to have him respond, “Blue is not you … you’re a hacienda.”

If we didn’t know Sondheim’s feelings before he wrote a certain letter this summer, we might infer them now, for he tells the reason he called one Wise Guys song “Addison’s Trip” and not the more logical “I’m on My Way”: that’s “the name of the great song at the climax of Porgy and Bess, and I don’t like to tread on giant toes.” (He also admits that this song has one of the two melodies that he’s recycled in his career. Read and find out the other.)

The truly great give credit to others when it’s due them. So Sondheim credits Joanna Gleason with an incisive Into the Woods suggestion and James Lapine for the idea that Cinderella purposely leave a shoe behind.

Lapine also made an important suggestion involving Assassins. Sondheim says he and John Weidman had originally planned to start the musical with the most notorious assassin of the 20th century -- Lee Harvey Oswald – until Lapine suggested that they save him until the end. When Oswald finally did appear, Sondheim reports, “the audience gasped. They had been so absorbed with the other eight assassins that they’d forgotten he’d even existed.” That certainly was true in my case.

Still, for those who think that Sondheim is all art, he does make clear that one reason he took the assignment writing for Madonna in Dick Tracy was that it “might be my chance to have a hit record.” The best words in the entire book, however, come on page 120. After relating how he wanted to use the device of having “gunshots as rhythmic underpinning” in “The Ballad of Booth,” he writes, “I’d still like to use it.” Here’s hoping he does in, of course, a new show.

My last gift suggestion is not for you. But if you know toddlers who were born in January, February, June or July, consider getting them a children’s picture book that’s one of the comparatively few to be inspired by a Broadway show song.

Comden and Green’s “What’s New at the Zoo?” from their Do Re Mi was originally meant to be a spoof of a ‘50s nonsense rock song: “‘Ouch! You’re stepping on my pouch!’ to the bear said the kangaroo. ‘Oh! You’re stepping on my toe!’ to the kangaroo said the gnu.”

But wouldn’t a young kid find those lines greatly entertaining when printed along with fanciful illustrations? Phyllis Newman, Green’s widow, hired Travis Foster to illustrate each line with a bear, kangaroo, gnu, elephant, moose, goose, giraffe, wolf, porcupine, swine, chimpanzee and a few seals.

Hence, the 35-page 9-by-12 What’s New at the Zoo? Don’t hesitate, too, to buy the little kids the original cast album of Do Re Mi so that they can sing along while perusing the book. This way, you’ll set them on the road to a life of appreciating Broadway music. Before you know it, they’ll be reading Look, I Made a Hat.

                                                                                                                                                — Peter Filichia



You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at His book Broadway Musical MVPs 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available at

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